All-time record temperatures in Paris, fires in the Amazon, Mississippi River flooding, the Maldives underwater . . .
Everywhere we turn, we hear warnings about serious threats to life on earth. With each report, extremists demand immediate, drastic government measures to slow down climate change before it is too late.
Most stories lay the blame squarely on us humans, particularly on carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas produced by our burning coal, oil, or natural gas. In their zeal to protect the environment, however, few activists stop to question the data that supposedly links human activity to a rise in global temperature or to a rise in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Even fewer have taken the time to consider how proposed restrictions on fossil fuels could make life more difficult, especially for the poor.
Those of us in affluent societies tend to forget that the standard of living all over the world is directly related to the availability of affordable energy. While the cost of renewable energy like solar panels and wind turbines is declining rapidly, it will be years before they are widely available at a reasonable cost.
With so much at stake, we must analyze the scientific data evenhandedly. If a problem exists with human production of CO2, we must carefully consider the consequences of our proposed actions.
To be sure, a dramatic increase in global temperatures and extreme weather events—drought, fires, hurricanes, floods, and the like—would be devastating for life on planet earth, causing loss of human life, property, and crops. But before we join the stampede to restructure how the world generates energy, Christians need to weigh factors that secular experts often overlook because they don’t share our biblical worldview.
God Has a Plan and a Purpose for the Earth
It is easy for us as Christians to get so tied up in our daily trials that we forget about the higher purposes of the One who created this world. God cares deeply about the earth and its climate. The earth is actually mentioned in the Bible’s very first verse: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
God had a plan and a purpose for the earth long before he created anything, but he placed mankind at the center of his plan (Acts 17:24–27). While the earth and its climate are important, human beings made in his own image are of much greater importance to God. The earth was created to be a safe home for human beings and a place where we would share with God the responsibility of caring for the earth (Genesis 1:27–28).
But God didn’t create everything and then go on vacation. He is actively holding his creation together all the time (Colossians 1:16–17). After Noah’s flood, God promised the earth would remain habitable until the end of time: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22).
So before we begin weighing the complexities of what might cause global warming or extreme weather events, we must first recognize several fundamental truths: God’s supernatural creation of the earth and those created in his image; his promise that the earth will remain habitable; and his intention to fulfill his higher purposes.
Our Limited Understanding of God’s Ordained Cycles
According to the secular ‘‘no God” story, the earth somehow was formed about 4.5 billion years ago as a molten mass, and it cooled over about 200 million years. Secular scientists still struggle to explain the source of the water in earth’s life-giving oceans, since it could not have been there in the beginning. According to their view, all the changes necessary to evolve a watery world suitable for life were unguided and completely random. Consequently, they fear the earth’s life-support systems could easily get out of control and become hostile to life.
In contrast, God’s Word says the earth was covered with water from creation, and the water obeyed God’s command (Genesis 1:2; Proverbs 8:28–29; 2 Peter 3:5). Unlike other celestial objects, our planet is covered with about 326 quintillion gallons of life-sustaining water on its surface, regulating our climate and providing for our needs. The prophet Isaiah describes the water cycle beautifully, as it fulfills God’s wish to nourish life (Isaiah 55:10–11).
The water cycle explains much of how our climate works, but we still don’t understand many details even today. The most advanced climate models still cannot accurately predict how clouds affect earth’s temperature. Thousands of years ago, Job acknowledged this challenge:
Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable. For he draws up the drops of water; they distill his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop on mankind abundantly. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion? (Job 36:26–30)
We have long understood that water is integral to moderating the earth’s climate by readily transferring the heat from the sun around our planet. However, until very recently, water’s role as a greenhouse gas has been a well-kept secret in contemporary climate debates. The naturally occurring water vapor in the atmosphere has a much greater greenhouse gas effect than the CO2 from our cars and factories.
In simple terms, greenhouse gases act like a winter blanket over the earth, holding in some of the heat that would otherwise be lost. Without the presence of water in our atmosphere and its greenhouse effect, earth’s climate would likely be too cold to sustain life.
This inconvenient fact weakens the argument for immediate action on climate change. Water molecules are brilliantly designed for maintaining a temperate climate. Before we look at the influence of man-made CO2 on climate, we must first recognize that the earth has many complex systems in place clearly designed to keep us warm. Our climate is miraculously stable, given that the earth is surrounded by cold, empty space.
What Is Our Responsibility?
Just because God has designed a marvelous system to maintain a warm earth doesn’t absolve humans of their responsibilities. What is our duty?
According to the Bible, we are to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26, 28). Most take this to mean that we have stewardship over the earth. In this case, it is prudent that we do scientific investigations to know how our climate is changing. We should evaluate these facts from a biblical perspective. If we find that our actions are truly detrimental to the earth, and particularly to its inhabitants, we should change what we are doing.
Should We Be Concerned About the Rise in Temperatures?
Scientists agree on the facts, which we observe and measure. It is certainly true that the earth’s temperature has been rising over the past few centuries since the little ice age of about AD 1300–1850. It is also true that CO2 does act as a greenhouse gas and is therefore capable of raising the temperature of the earth. It is even true that the concentration of CO2 has been rising for several decades.
But just because CO2 and temperature have been rising together for quite a while doesn’t automatically prove one caused the other. That’s the great challenge in scientific research—to determine what are the true causes of the changes we observe. In this case, that boils down to answering the question, “Is CO2 the predominant cause of the current change in the climate?” This is not easy to answer because we have so much more to learn about many factors that influence our climate.
Notice in Figure 1 that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has not always correlated with the earth’s temperature.1 From AD 1000 to 1300, for instance, global temperature declined while CO2 remained fairly constant. The earth’s temperature also began to rise about 100 years before the carbon dioxide did. Our understanding of this relationship is far from absolute, as many people claim. If it were absolute, the two lines would correlate over the entire length of time.
When pondering this issue, keep in mind that human beings are responsible for a fraction of the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, not the entire amount. Climate experts are doing their best—with the help of an armada of advanced satellites and computers—to separate all these factors that affect global temperature. Most now claim that the models are sophisticated enough to prove that mankind is the predominant cause of the latest rise in the earth’s temperature. But we still have ample reason to question these conclusions, which many say should not be questioned, because of the poor correlation between CO2 and temperature (shown in Figure 1) and the broad range of future temperature increases that current mathematical models predict.
What About Extreme Weather Events?
In the discussion of human-caused climate change, one of the most popular claims is the increasing number of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and floods. But has the frequency of these events actually changed, and does it correlate to the rising amount of CO2?
Advocates of immediate, drastic action often latch onto any extreme weather event and claim that it was caused by climate change. But a growing new field known as attribution science is attempting to develop a statistical way to connect a particular rare event to a particular cause. To establish a connection, the statistician must look at a sufficiently long period of time and a sufficient number of similar, rare events (not a single event). For example, this year researchers completed a long-term analysis (over 100 years) looking for any relationships between the increase in hurricanes in the Atlantic and the rise in the earth’s temperature. They found no significant correlation. The authors concluded, “In short, the historical Atlantic hurricane frequency record does not provide compelling evidence for a substantial greenhouse warming-induced long-term increase.”2
“The chaotic nature of weather means that it is generally impossible to say, for any specific event, that it would not have occurred in the absence of human influence on climate,” explains Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, which is spearheading the development of these statistical tools. “In a simple analogy, a dice may be loaded to come up six, but a six could have come up anyway without the loading.”3
The correlation between human activity and extreme weather events seems to be much more tenuous than the correlation between human activity and higher global temperatures.
Everything Is Politics
No matter how much scientific data we collect or how successful future models become at attributing blame for climate change, they do not tell us what we should do. The underlying issues are moral and political, not scientific.
Should we waste natural resources, such as fossil fuels, or wantonly pollute God’s earth? Of course not! We don’t need a scientific study to tell us this. We should be good stewards right now because our worldview tells us so—whether we are Christians who believe God is the owner of creation or are secular humanists who are concerned about self-preservation. Science is just a tool to help us understand the world around us and the consequences of our actions.
What if it becomes clear in the future that burning fossil fuels is seriously harming life on this planet? We must weigh many complex moral factors based on our worldview. That includes weighing the effects on people. What suffering would a lack of affordable energy cause to millions, even billions, of people worldwide? Who has the authority to make such difficult decisions?
As fellow humans made in God’s image, we can all share many common concerns. Both Christians and non-Christians agree that we have a responsibility to care for the earth (Genesis 1:26, 28). Most people would acknowledge that we must be careful because of mankind’s tendency to act selfishly and abuse power. And most are wary of unintended consequences of political decisions even if our motives are pure.
Yet Christians will never be on the same page with non-Christians because we have such radically different starting points. The key to interpreting the scientific data and determining whether the earth’s climate is out of control is found in the light of God’s Word. Without this starting point, people will reach radically different conclusions about the state of our climate and what, if anything, needs to be done.
Those with a secular view have good reason to be concerned about rising temperatures. In their view, the earth’s climate is uncontrolled and dangerous, and humans are the only ones who can do anything about it.
In a biblical view, by contrast, God designed the earth and our climate, and he is actively sustaining creation. Though the temperature of the earth will fluctuate, the Creator has promised that the climate will remain suitable for human life until he creates a new heaven and a new earth (Genesis 8:22).
Christians can be a voice of reason and hope to a frightened world. We should point people to the wisdom found in God’s Word, which shows us how to tackle daily challenges as well as the eternal issues that matter most. Through it all, we can be confident that God will keep his promises. He always has. He always will.